Peter Sarsgaard on The Lost Girl, Her Literary Fixations


Photo: Aaron Richter / Contour / Contour by Getty Images for Pizz

Peter Sarsgaard is sitting across from me, spoiling the end of Lolita. It’s early December and we’re in Rucola, an Italian spot in Boerum Hill that he frequents, and the conversation has turned to Vladimir Nabokov, whose book I’ve sort of never read. But that possibility doesn’t seem to cross Sarsgaard’s mind when he begins to describe one of the novel’s concluding scenes, in which the protagonist, Humbert Humbert, wedges Clare Quilty, who, like Humbert, is obsessed with Lolita, 12. year. “He shoots her and he shoots her.” Then he goes up the stairs, and he shoots and shoots and shoots, ”Sarsgaard says as I nod. “The amount of anger Humbert has for a guy doing the same thing as him, it’s like he’s committing suicide. It’s almost comical. Such a smart book.

When Sarsgaard talks about books – which he often does over our lunch break – he speaks with genuine awe. These are appropriate digressions given Sarsgaard’s new role as prominent scholar Professor Hardy in his wife Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature debut, The lost girl. The film, adapted from a novel by Elena Ferrante, centers on Leda, a middle-aged divorced teacher vacationing alone on a Greek island who meets a young mother named Nina. Nina and her daughter trigger Leda’s memories of her own precocious motherhood, and these sequences parallel the story unfolding nowadays: Young Leda is a brilliant and ambitious scholar who suffocates under the demands of domesticity until when she met the famous Professor Hardy at a conference. In a film about the untold aspects of motherhood, Sarsgaard’s role is small but essential: by seducing Leda, he catalyzes her to act according to her most selfish and less motherly desires.

As an actor, Sarsgaard is a chameleon: his defining role was that of a murderer in Boys don’t cry, and he’s played it all from a stoner gravedigger in a cult classic Garden condition to an eccentric scientist in The Green Lantern. To prepare for the role of Professor Hardy, Sarsgaard read nearly 800 pages a day, he estimates, in an attempt to get in touch with his academic side. On Spetses, the austere Greek island where The lost girl was filmed, he read the Wizard, a 700-page book by John Fowles; and Anna karenina; and almost all of Nabokov’s work. He listened to lectures from “iconic rock star intellectuals” like Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges and Kurt Vonnegut, studying how they spoke about literature to their audiences.

In The lost girl, the seed of attraction between Hardy and Leda is planted during a talk he gives on WH Auden. Sarsgaard’s character addresses the packed house, projecting electricity and gentle charisma. But the effect, Sarsgaard admits, can only be partially attributed to its preparation. “You have your wife who adores you and films you in a certain way,” he says. “If the person walking by the camera loves you, then the audience will love you.”

Sarsgaard first met Gyllenhaal at a dinner party about 20 years ago. Their first meeting was reminiscent of the one between Leda and Professor Hardy: “We just hit it off,” Sarsgaard says. “Not just artistically, but in terms of our minds.” Since then, the two have been partners in creative and romantic ways. When, during the pandemic, Gyllenhaal made his first short, Sarsgaard starred in it (the role was to make love to a tree). And as she wrote the screenplay for The lost girl, he acted as a sounding board, avoiding reading the novel in order to be able to come back to it fresh. His role as Professor Hardy meant Gyllenhaal had to direct him in sex scenes again, and when I wonder if that was weird at all, he bluntly explains that it was just the opposite. “She was really focused on the action on the stage – making it look a certain way,” Sarsgaard said. “I felt less nervous than usual. I joked, “Everyone should do this with their wife”. “

He has a fascination with literary husband-wife couples. One of the reasons Sarsgaard is so drawn to Nabokov is that he worked closely with his wife, Vera, on all of his books, including Lolita. “I was interested in him as the guy who wrote that dirty book with his wife. She even encouraged him to write it, ”he says, referring to the moment when Vladimir tried to burn the manuscript and Vera saved it. Another literary woman cited by Sarsgaard is Norman Rush, whose wife, Elsa, served as both editor and muse for the novel. Coupling, on an anthropologist who stumbles upon an all-female society founded by a charismatic man. “Elsa is all over this book,” he says. “Her name should be on the cover as the guy who wrote it, but you can feel the book wouldn’t have been what it is without her.” The same is true, he says, for him and Gyllenhaal: “We are so entwined in everything the other person does. We know what scene the other person is shooting on any given day, even if they are far away.

This line of literary couples is interesting to consider in the context of The lost girl, which is so much about how the conditions of femininity crush the possibilities of creative production, how Leda’s talents and desires are encompassed in the act of being a wife and mother. Vera Nabokov and Elsa Rush follow a tradition of wives who functioned as their husbands’ typists, readers, muses, or sponsors but who, unlike their wives, did not become household literary names. But maybe the Sarsgaard-Gyllenhaal partnership is a nice reverse: the husband who will let himself be molded in the service of his wife’s vision, then step back and let her do his thing. “We always know that ‘this is mine and that is yours’,” Sarsgaard said. “I have no property on The lost girl apart from my little share. In the film, characters like Leda make mysterious decisions that are never explained or rationalized; many of Sarsgaard’s suggestions were about adding plot points to strengthen the narrative propulsion and make the characters’ motivations clearer – which Gyllenhaal declined. “I kept wanting her to tighten the screw harder for the plot,” Sarsgaard says. “It could be a masculine thing. “

Sarsgaard freely admits that between him and Gyllenhaal, she is the most prolific. For years, Gyllenhaal had wanted to adapt the Days of abandonment, another first novel by Ferrante. The rights to the book were caught in legal issues, but when offered The lost girl, “She started working on it and wrote it down so quickly,” Sarsgaard says. He also considers himself a writer, but his approach is much more laborious; he’ll start things off and drop them halfway, or he’ll spend an afternoon stuck on a word. “I was writing something at the time, and I remember thinking, Oh my God, I wrote an eighth of what I wanted to write.“He still hasn’t finished it.

These days, Sarsgaard pours as much obsession with his hobbies as he does with his roles. These hobbies are essentially Brooklyn’s dad from the early 2000s. (He and Gyllenhaal have two children, ages 9 and 15.) He raises bees, both on the roof of the family’s Brooklyn apartment. and in their Vermont home, where he owns a small orchard. He grows apples, pears, cherries, apricots and plums as well as lingonberries, cranberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. “I go a long way with this stuff,” he says, before launching into an explanation of the difference between mason bees and honey bees.

Soon Sarsgaard gathers his bag and goes to pick up his dog, a wire-haired pointer who has been waiting patiently outside the restaurant. He plans to spend the afternoon digging into a new project. “I’m writing something for Maggie to play a part and another project for us to do together,” he says. “She’s helping me with that.”

Want more stories like this? Subscribe now to support our journalism and gain unlimited access to our coverage. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the January 3, 2021 issue of New York Magazine.


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